Thursday, May 04, 2006

"The Immigrant Uprising"

Anonymous David asked, in his last comment, "What does the immigrant uprising look like from your vantage point?" This is a serious enough question that I think it deserves a post, not just another comment.

First of all, David, go back and read the comments under my post "Walls and Borders" (March 21), especially Boggart's long comment on the view of the situation from a residence 11 miles from the Mexican border. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it, but most of Boggart's points are really well taken.

I saw the immigrant uprising from the viewpoint of my office on the 6th floor of a building near a main street in northern California. It was amazing to watch - at least 10 visible blocks of people, filling the sidewalks about 3-4 abreast, walking quietly onward for another 4-5 blocks before they turned right toward a park where they gathered. When I saw them they were stopping for traffic lights, although some of my co-workers said they didn't at first. I didn't see any flags, just all those white T-shirts. That was the day the garbage guy didn't come around to my office to empty my wastebasket, and the cleaning lady didn't refill the toilet paper dispensers. Nobody was really inconvenienced; the office building is immaculately maintained.

If you mean, what do I think about all this, I don't know. As Boggart pointed out, there aren't any easy answers here. So I'll just give some random impressions, please don't expect these to be consistent or to make sense:

I read an English translation of the Spanish version of the anthem, Nuestro Himno, and I was tremendously moved. It's a staggering compliment to our country, our flag, and our ideals. You'll find the translation at the bottom of the article at the link.

James Sensenbrenner is freaking insane, absolutely barking mad, if he seriously thinks he can classify 12 million people as felons and then do anything realistic about it. We can't handle the prison population we have now.

Not to mention making felons of teachers who teach their children and doctors who heal them; I guess the good Christians of today want to throw the Good Samaritan in jail. Besides which, you can catch an infectious disease from an illegal immigrant as fast as you can from a good Murrican citizen; faster, in fact, because they don't have health insurance and so don't go to the doctor until they're REALLY sick. Once upon a time we had a concept called "public health" but we seem to have forgotten it.

This country was built by immigrants who came here with nothing but their hands and their work ethic; we didn't limit immigration until 1924 (except for the Chinese). The undocumented illegals are a whole lot closer to those immigrants than to some of our current citizens. "I lift my lamp beside the golden door" - but the golden door isn't on the Mexican border, apparently. Some people seem to think, my family is aboard, now pull up the gangplank, and that gives me kind of a queasy feeling.

On the other side of the coin, it takes years to become a citizen legally, and granting these people amnesty will skip them to the head of the line, and that's not fair to the people who've tried to obey the law. Do we have all these illegals because Reagan granted an amnesty in the eighties?

On the third side of the coin (sort of like the third half of the show on Car Talk), the urge to not let people in because they're not like us is not only racist and xenophobic, it's boringly racist and xenophobic. All the things they're saying about the Mexican illegals now have been said, in the past (in only approximate reverse order), about: the Poles. The Slavs. The Italians. The Irish (for generations, "No Irish need apply"). The Swedes and Norwegians. The Germans (and that was Benjamin Franklin, ranting that they refused to learn English and they bred like rabbits, and haven't we heard this before?). Which of those were your ancestors? The real question is, why don't we want them to come here? Why do we feel so threatened by them?

Finally, a little full disclosure, so to speak: it's very likely my lace-curtain Irish, boned-lace-choker grandmother was a wetback (as we used to call them before it became politically incorrect), all 5 feet 2 inches of her. A Canadian wetback: she came to the country in 1921, and just never bothered to become a citizen; and sometime in the 40's she insisted on going home to Toronto to see the relatives, and they had to smuggle her back across the border because by then you needed papers. She's dead now, God rest her; if they want to deport her they'll have to dig her up.

So I don't have any answers. I can't argue with Boggart's points about the load on our services, and the taxes they don't pay, it's all too true; but this whole country is built on immigration, right back to the "Native" Americans whose ancestors came over the Bering Strait in the last interglacial, or whenever. The only continent in the world with people who really can't be called immigrants is Africa, it's the only place the species evolved. Everybody else is an immigrant
at some level; and I think we need to quit arguing about who has the "right" to be where, and start trying to think of the practicalities that we all need to deal with, like educating children and preventing epidemics.


  1. Anonymous7:04 AM

    Just to add to the muddle, the May Day "demo" down here near the border was a bit of a fizzle. It happened. A fair amount of students took the day off. Some local stores closed in anticipation of employees not showing up for work. The march didn't really last very long. In fact, the local paper's front page article commented on how folks came out, gave it the old one-two, and went home. Only the students,considered truant by the local district, continued to drive around enjoying the day.

    The students who showed up for my classes, very few absences, were scathing in their opinions of someone who would skip class for this type of event. The majority of my students are of below the border extraction and the first family member to attempt college. They felt their education was more important than the demo. (Believe me, my jokes aren't the reason they come to class.)

    A large number of my students were torn. They were concerned that someone who wanted to work and gave good service in exchange for a paycheck, should somehow be able to do so legally. They also weren't comfortable with illegal immigration. Of course, we must assume anyone whose family was illegal listened rather than adding to the discussion. There was also a concern with the dangers, to local residents, presented by the rather grim folks who profit from human trafficking.

    Then, yesterday afternoon, in an adv. comp. class, we had a discussion, preparatory to writing an argumentitive essay, on bilingual education. The class had read a number of articles, and I thought they would take fire with this topic. After all, the class is one individual shy of being 100% "hispanic." (A government created term that lumps folks from many ethnic backgrounds into one catagory based on geopgraphy.)The class viewpoint, unanimous, forced me to change the focus of the upcoming paper.

    They felt, if you lived in the good old USA, you had better learn English. Period. No wiggle room. They were concerned, sadly, with non-English speaking grandparents who couldn't communicate with their grandchildren, but this was somehow considered an unavoidable cost of the liguistic process. This wasn't the viewpoint I'd expected. It isn't what the media pundits report, and I'm still mulling it over.

  2. Anonymous7:20 AM

    You know, my wife and I were talking about this just the other day. We didn’t come up with any concrete solutions either. I don’t think it is fair to just grant them citizenship. People, who really want to be citizens, need to do it legally. I do think that process could, perhaps, be speed up. My sister-in-law is Australian and has gone through a heck of a lot of hoops to get her citizenship.

    Maybe what we should do is let the people who want to come and work, come and work. Give them some kind of workers visa so we can keep track of them and tax them if they work. This will also supply them with some basic rights. If they want to apply for full citizenship, then they can follow the legal requirements.

    This is all academic though. Big business will never let it happen. If immigrant workers have right, then they can’t be paid dirt and treated like cattle. The whole reason we have the problem is that big business doesn’t want to pay full wages for its workers.

    Boggart – I agree with your class. If you really want to get along in the country you are moving to, learn the language. People moving to France or Japan learn French or Japanese, why should English be different?

    hedra - nice to have you post again.

  3. Anonymous2:56 PM

    "She's dead now, God rest her; if they want to deport her they'll have to dig her up."
    You made my day with this quip. Thank you.

    Your conclusion makes a great deal of sense to me, and you are absolutely right that Sensenbrenner is barking mad. My own take is that they're here, they're part of our society, they're integral to our economy, and we need to face reality.

    I think the larger issue of the absence of public health in the richest nation in history of the planet, coupled with no real commitment to universal public education in my lifetime - it has always been very uneven, and it has always been a function of the wealth of the specific community - is what is really troubling us. Immigrants who have snuck in are, I kind of suspect, simply casting a light on endemic problems that will only get worse, illegals or no illegals, as the social contract is being shredded.

    I would not be at all surprised to discover that illegals neither bolster nor drag down the economy, although they do provide a pool of defenseless slave labor. I suspect they are mostly just 12 million more people. Where there are problems, I suspect it is the result of concentrations of people who cannot freely participate in society, rather like my whole damned beloved South in the not too distant past.

    I also think one of the biggest (and parallel) problems for the inner cities is the concentration of abandoned citizens who neither "deserve" the police protection or quality schools afforded to the more affluent, less densely populated suburbs.

    I saw it as a child in the 50s, when my white junior high school in affluent Winter Park was first rate, whereas the white junior high school in blue collar east Orlando couldn't get shit in the way of attention or resources. I don't even need to mention how the black schools were treated.

    But I also recognize this is a complex problem for which easy answers aren't answers at all. And I think the voices of the people in the trenches of this one are central. But I do believe the smartest thing we could possibly do is embrace the 12 million who are here, then do everything we can to contribute to more economic well being in Central and South America, starting with getting the hell out of the way of the populist revolutions that are gaining momentum and political/economic power.

    I suspect that most of what we will hear will, as usual, be horseshit, and that intelligent, reasoned efforts at finding humane, constructive solutions have about the same chance as did the efforts 30 years ago to point America in a positive ecological direction (which I still don't see actually happening, just more tokenism). Doesn't mean I'll ever stop hoping, however.

    On the issue of language, I'm not surprised the students are so adamant about learning English. It's a matter of identity as an American. This has always been true of the children of immigrants.

    Why would students skip class to participate in a demonstration against turning 12 million people into felons? That one is easy for me to understand, but I don't mean to make like of boggart's discovery. I'm a retired teacher, and I remember well those occasions when I learned from my students something other than what I expected.

    I did not mean to be so long-winded, but I'm not sure what to delete.

    Anonymous David

  4. Anonymous5:06 PM

    What I should have mentioned but left out, may be somewhat enlightening. I teach upper divison, transfer level courses. No credit to me particularly, just the way things fall. My advance comp. is made up of juniors and the odd student going for a grad. degree. So my students are more experienced and comfortable in English. They've had no choice in order to get where they are. The ESL classes were decimated that day. Instructors found themselves with, sometimes, less than a quarter of the class present.

  5. Well, that produced a good exchange! You're all right, I need to do this more often.

    Boggart, your class' comments are really interesting. This squares, I may say, with the experience of previous waves of immigrants: the first generation learns a little English, or none; the second generation is bilingual; the third generation can't talk to their grandparents. My first husband, 30 or so years ago, was the grandson of Italian immigrants; his grandfather had a very heavy accent, and his grandmother spoke so little English that I was never able to converse with her at all. And I work with a woman whose mother still speaks only Chinese.

    You're quite right, David, that we need to deal with reality a little better than we do. The sad truth is, if they could get decent jobs in their own countries they wouldn't bother to come here. I wish I had your faith in the populist revolutions. By nationalizing the Bolivian oil industry, Evo Morales is starting down a path that's been traveled before. It doesn't lead to socialist prosperity. It leads to massive poverty at the bottom and massive graft and cronyism at the top. Morales may be a better man than that; I hope he is. But he has to prove it.

    Stephen, as I said, this country was built by and on immigration, and we are damn fools to make it as hard as we do to get in here. Let the best and brightest come! Welcome to them. But legally.

  6. Anonymous2:13 AM

    I suspect it will ultimately be a question of whether or not the Bolivians and Venezuelans can make it work better than has been the case in past populist uprisings. One positive is that the populist uprising didn't require killing the opposition, a reversal of the US-backed oligarchies. Beyond that, it can't be any worse for the masses, and in Venezuela it's already a lot better.


    I wondered. Makes sense. I also taught English, all levels, and found intriguing differences, not only in how well they expressed themselves, but also in what they chose to write about, including in their more personal essays. I also learned, as I said, never to assume you know what they are thinking. They'll surprise you, sometimes distressingly, sometimes wonderfully.

    I also learned as I got older (hedera's post on aging), interacting with younger minds was incredibly valuable in keeping my mind alive.


    Ah, legal, which your grandmother wasn't. In the case of children born here, some of whom are being deported, there is always the question How can a child's existence be illegal? Reminds me a bit of when birth certificates (mine included) and paperwork for enrolling in elementary school included the question Legitimate?
    I guess the only thing I do understand is that any particular geographical entity has to practice some sort of security for its borders, but then there's the suburb of New Orleans which would not allow New Orleaneans fleeing the flooding to cross the bridge.
    Damnable dilemmas, the human experience be thy petri dish.

    Anonymous David

    This is pretty interesting at 5 am (no, I didn't stay up all night, although that is not out of the question - just started today early - I tend to resent the fact that we have to have sleep).

  7. On the issue of the populist uprisings: do remember that Chavez in Venezuela - and probably Morales in Bolivia - can get away with a lot more with oil in the $70 a barrel range than they will be able to if the oil market ever reverses itself, even partially. The key will be: can they continue their policies even when the money isn't rolling in? Although I agree, it's hard for the masses to have it much worse than they did.

  8. Anonymous11:19 PM

    I think that's why Chavez is pushing the dense crude (or whatever it's called) issue, along with a Latin American trading bloc. He is thinking in larger contexts. I'm just waiting to see if there is enough collective wisdom at work in South America.

    On the "Mexican problem," I keep thinking about the fact that Mexico is one of the three North American countries, and that the southwest United States used to be part of Mexico. Our attempts to define Mexicans as "the other" just doesn't add up. I really am convinced that we had better be much more about embracing than excluding, unless we think the model of the gated community is applicable to US-Mexican relations.

    I tend at times toward the "load of dingoes' kidneys" view of most of the mainline commentary, although I know that risks being an easy way out of wrestling with all the various cross-currents.

    Anonymous David the tree hugger turned immigrant hugger, aka gd mf-ing proud, unreconstructed flaming liberal (especially when we used to light our H2S emissions).

  9. Anonymous10:08 PM

    "Everybody else is an immigrant at some level; and I think we need to quit arguing about who has the "right" to be where, and start trying to think of the practicalities that we all need to deal with, like educating children and preventing epidemics."


    I went back and read your post again. Your conclusion really says it all for me. Most of the rest of what I'm hearing, especially from the right, is nativist (how ironically inappropriate a name, since we Anglos are the descendants of the ruthless destroyers of the descendants of the first immigrants) fearmongering. And for God's sake, the assault on the National Anthem in Spanish is about as mindless as it gets. The Swiss have four national languages, for crying out loud, and the official name of Switzerland is in a fifth language, Latin.

    As far as educating children is concerned, start with all those fear-struck Bush supporters. Either that or give them all baby pacifiers.

    Anonymous David